The Cadillac Three: We could still become the biggest band in the world

a shot of cadillac three looking into the camera in a caravan
On the road again: (l-r) Kelby Ray, Neil Mason and Jaren Johnston (Image credit: Neil Zlozower)

It’s Night One, and Kelby Ray, the man with a personality even bigger than his hair and the lap steel-weilding third of The Cadillac Three, is off the leash. He leans in conspiratorially and whispers: “I think I might be going ‘Night One’… It can get pretty messy. You might wanna ask the guys about this…”

It’s a stifling Wednesday in mid-July and The Cadillac Three (and their Classic Rock interloper) convened earlier tonight at the Red Door Saloon in their home town of Nashville. It’s one of those great spit ’n’ sawdust places, loud music, country and rock alternately blaring from the jukebox and the beer is ice cold. It’s full of musicians talking about music and songwriting circles and publishing deals. It couldn’t really be much more Nashville if it tried. And it’s exactly the sort of place that you imagine The Cadillac Three should be hanging out.

The band are poised to release their third album, Legacy, in a couple of weeks and are off out on the road for a few days to play a massive country music festival in Ohio and have invited Classic Rock along for the ride. Which is why you find us on the bus, with Ray on the brink of going Night One. Which, in a nutshell, is drinking. A lot. And subsequenly going a little crazy. It usually happens on the first night on the road (hence the moniker); it’s the initial taste of freedom, the open road and the promise of rock’n’roll ahead.

And that’s exactly what The Cadillac Three are all about. One listen to any of their records to date and there’s plenty of proof that their primary sources of joy are boozing, enjoying the good times in life and simply celebrating being from the south. Let’s be honest, it’s a template that’s served many a band well.

“All our records have been about our life experience,” says frontman Jaren Johnston, popping open the first of many beers. “If you look at the first record [2012’s The Cadillac Three] it’s all about drinking and fighting and me just trying to find something. When we started this band, writing-wise the thing that made everything glue together was where we’re from, what we’re proud of, how we were raised and what we were listening to when we grew up. So we did that.

TC3: playing “sludgy country and western metal music with a lap steel and no bass player

TC3: playing “sludgy country and western metal music with a lap steel and no bass player (Image credit: Neil Zlozower)

“It’s still the same three dudes, no bullshit. Same tricks, but I feel like the songwriting’s getting better. Even if it’s not getting better it’s getting wider, broader. I think the biggest thing for this record is we’re not scared to sing about things that three years ago I would never have thought in a million years I’d sing about.”

That’s not to say that Legacy is a grand departure for TC3. It’s most definitely not. The album is chock-full of their trademark countrified rock grooves, from the syncopated Cadillacin’ with its unselfconcious references to Johnny Cash and ZZ’s Cheap Sunglasses, to cheeky post-party anthem Dang If We Didn’t, to American Slang which would be a massive radio hit if there was any justice in the world, but there’s perhaps just a little less heavy metal bluster about it.

Life is now significantly different for the trio since they began. Johnston and his wife have recently become parents – the singer’s usual chirpy demeanour is ever so slightly blunted by the perma-exhausted thousand-yard stare of the new dad – and Ray got married.

But surely the change, such that it is, is simply a consquence of growing up and getting older.

“I think that’s part of it,” says drummer Neil Mason, a man of significantly fewer words than his bandmates. “But you can’t just stay in the same box your whole life. Nobody wants to do that. No matter who you are, no matter what you do. The other side of it is that we’re not afraid to try different things.”

He pauses, and shrugs: “The worst thing that’s going to happen is we put out what we think is a really good song and people aren’t going to like it. You’ve got to do what you think is right in the moment, and that’s what we’re trying to do – trying to stay true to ourselves.”

“You can’t be in the biggest band in the world if you do the same damn thing over and over,” Johnston says.

Do they want to be the biggest band in the world?

“Oh, definitely,” he replies in a heartbeat. “There’s no reason any one of us in this room right now would be still doing this if we didn’t think we could and wanna be the biggest band in the world.”

Legacy is the third album for TC3 since 2012 and, more astonishingly, the second one in the space of a year. In a climate where Axl can take over a decade or Metallica the best part of one to get new material out, it’s quite an acheivement. Received wisdom in rock’n’roll dictates that you have your entire life to write your first album and then a few months to write each subsequent one. But, given TC3’s songwriting prowess both in and out of the band (all three bandmates are prolific writers in the Nashville scene, writing for other artists – Johnston has written No.1 singles for the likes of country superstar Keith Urban – when they’re not concentrating on Cadillac), that wasn’t quite the case.

“The thing is, we wrote that first record very quick,” admits Johnston. “Like in a week or two. So I get that statement, and it’s very true for a lot of bands. But because we write all the time back there [in Nashville], we knew we didn’t want to wait another three or however many years. We wanted to get the album out quick. It’s a waste to write all these songs and not do anything with them. I mean, if you write three hundred songs, you’re losing so many. There are songs that should have been on that second record that probably won’t ever see the light of day because you get tired of ’em, or it didn’t hit at the right time or whatever.

“This record, we wrote these songs and we had two that we really liked from the last round – Cadillacin’ and It Ain’t That Country – and the others that we’ve written on the bus that we just thought: ‘This is starting to sound like a record.’ And that’s what bands are supposed to do, so we’re like: ‘We have a record, let’s go in and cut it.’”

So that’s exactly what they did.

“We cut it in December, finished it in January, mixed it in February and gave it to the label. They loved it and we’re putting it out in August, a year later after Bury Me In My Boots. There are not a lot of bands out there doing that.”

It’s proper old-school, seventies-style ‘get two albums done and dusted and out within twelve months’ behaviour.

“We draw a lot from that kinda influence,” says Kelby. “To us, that’s rock’n’roll. All that stuff in the seventies was like nine, ten songs, they put it out and next, next… And all of a sudden you’ve put out four or five albums in three or four years.

“And then it makes the show a lot easier to put together because you’ve got a whole bunch of songs to pick from. We play three hundred shows a year, man, worldwide. You need things to keep the three of us entertained and excited.”

“It’s for the fans, but it’s for us just as much,” says Johnston.

“We do this because it’s a lot of fun. We don’t have to do this shit. We do it because we love it. It’s three dudes who grew up together and it’s actually working for us worldwide. In America you don’t hear that story very often, us putting that record out as quick as possible. I love playing I’m Southern every night and I love playing Tennessee Mojo, but it’ll be neat to one night be: ‘Hey, man, let’s not play that and let’s play Cadillacin’ or let’s play Tennessee, or let’s do both.’ That’s the beauty of having enough shit in your tank.”

Clearly, given their work rate, having enough “shit in the tank” doesn’t seem to be any kind of problem for TC3.

“Songs get written all the time and sometimes they get turned into songs for us and sometimes they don’t,” explains Ray.

But how do you know which songs are going to be for The Cadillac Three ?

“You don’t, a lot of times,” Mason says, laughing. “Legacy’s a great example. That was a song that Jaren wrote and pitched. We all heard it at a writers’ round when someone else was singing it, and he was like: ‘Oh, I wrote this with Jaren.’ And it was like: ‘Jaren! Gimme that! Why don’t we get that? Let’s learn that. Let’s go do it.’ We cut it and now it’s the title of the album.”

Johnston: “But that was the thing. When I wrote Legacy I wasn’t in a place where I though it felt honest for us to play that song. It didn’t feel right to sing those lyrics.”

What goes around, comes around…

“On the other hand,” says Ray, warming to the theme, “with Long Hair Don’t Care and Cadillacin’, songs like that come out the air and it’s like, well, obviously, that’s for us.”

“Sometimes you know immediately and sometimes you don’t,” shrugs Johnston. “We were about to go into the studio to finish the record and we didn’t have all the songs yet. We didn’t know what we were going to do. So we brought our buddy Angelo out, and with the thought that we’re not out here writing Jason Aldean or Keith Urban songs, we’re writing the rest of this record right now. That was the focus. And it was the best thing. We nailed it. That doesn’t happen a lot. We don’t sit down and think: ‘Let’s write a Cadillac song.’”

Three men and bus: coming to a town near you soon

Three men and bus: coming to a town near you soon (Image credit: Neil Zlozower)

Sadly (or probably wisely), I don’t think a true Night One occurs. Which is probably for the best. With the midnight bus call, a couple of hours’ of chat, we all crawl into the sanctity of our bunks and the bus rumbles on through the night, crossing the entire state of Kentucky as we head up to Morristown, Ohio and our destination – the 41st annual Jamboree In The Hills. These days Jambo – as it’s known to the locals – is a four-day affair (plus two pre- party days, obviously) with an attendance not far off the numbers that Glastonbury welcomes. Over the course of the festival, Thomas Rhett, Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum will number among the headliners. This is most definitely a country music affair.

And this is right in the heart of America, the crowd are proudly bedecked in stars-and-stripes – T-shirts, bandanas, jackets, hats, you name it, you’ll see it all emblazoned with the livery of the American flag. In a marked difference from UK festivals, one glance out into the natural amphitheatre and you’re struck by the massive beer coolers (seriously, we’re talking some the size of a kitchen fridge on wheels) that the audience are permitted to bring in.

But in a startling turn of events, the beautiful summer has taken a bit of a turn for the British, and the heavens have opened, bringing the mud and a little bit of chaos. All of which results in things running behind schedule and forcing The Cadillac Three to forego their soundcheck. But it doesn’t really seem to phase them.

“It’s literally been like four days since we played a show,” says Ray, “but when we didn’t soundcheck or anything and it’s like we’re kinda cold coming out. It doesn’t matter if there’s like a hundred people or ten thousand people out there. It takes us a second and then we’re like: ‘Okay, wait, I’m doing this now.’ We’re a fucking rock’n’roll country and western bar band, so we go out and just do that.”

“That happens to have pretty decent songs,” interjects Johnston. But the singer is not overly happy with the show. “We’re accustomed to go and soundcheck and make sure everything is good, but when you get to this level a lot of times you don’t soundcheck, and tonight is a perfect example of why you need to fucking do that shit. My amp sounded completely different.”

“This crowd isn’t the best kind of example. They’re muddy and wet and they’re just drinking. A lot of people buy tickets to these country camping festivals months and months in advance. Just to go get drunk and party; they’ve no idea who’s going to be playing. I mean, we have fans out there, as you can tell, but until it’s dark and everyone’s drunk, that’s when it really gets going.”

Johnston is worrying unnecessarily. The crowd clearly didn’t mind about his amp sound, they were out for a good time and warmed to TC3’s rockier country grooves during their 40-minute set. But, granted, they’re going to be playing to a whole different captive audience when they arrive in the UK later this month.

Even if you only flick through Classic Rock, you’ll be aware that there’s definitely some sort of country, souther rock renaissance going on, especially this side of the Atlantic. Just look at the success in recent years of Black Stone Cherry, Blackberry Smoke and now The Cadillac Three. Do the band have any incling as to why this little island has warmed to their southern-fried tones?

“No idea,” says Johnston. “No idea.”

“I think they can see the honesty in it,” says Mason. “My favourite thing about what we do is whether it’s a big crowd like this or a hundred person club at the Barfly, we’re going to do what we do. We have some tricks and that’s about it. The stage may be a little bigger, or we may be a bit further away from the crowd, but that’s the deal, and obviously everybody in the UK seems to appreciate that honesty.”

“You guys take a lot less bullshit,” laughs Ray.

“We talk about this on the bus all the time,” Johnston continues. “Interviewers over here say: ‘We hear you guys in the UK are just blowing up – how, why, what’s going on?’ Honestly, I dunno, man. But I will say there’s no three-piece over there playing sludgy country and western metal music with a lap steel and no bass player. And then I realise: what the fuck? There’s no one doing that over here!”

“It’s southern rock,” Ray decides. “There’s something so intriguing about that to the Europeans and to the British.”

There is indeed, and as we head out to watch the Brothers Osbourne (who will support TC3 on the UK tour), Johnson reveals that they’ve got a lot to live up in the southern rock stakes

“We did the last Skynyrd cruise and we were watching on side stage. We’d just done a jam. It was us, Blackberry Smoke, Ricky Medlocke, Blackfoot and Skynyrd and a couple other bad dudes. It was crazy. The next day we watched Skynyrd’s set, and fucking Johnny [Van Zant] gets up there four or five songs in and says: ‘Y’know, there’s a lot of great bands on this thing. Obviously we can’t do this shit forever, but there’s a couple bands on this boat that we’d love to have carry the torch and we’d love it if they’d carry it for us.’ And he said The Cadillac Three and Blackberry Smoke. It was just the two. There was fifteen bands there and we’re all doing the same kinda thing. We heard that and we were like: ‘We have a fucking mission here now!”

No pressure, but Skynyrd have told you.

The Cadillac Three’s UK tour starts in Cardiff on November 12.

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Sian Llewellyn

Classic Rock editor Siân has been an obsessive music nerd for as long as she can remember. Has a pathological hatred of people turning the rock canon into jukebox musicals.